Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Michael Angelo
By Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792)
 
From the Fifteenth Discourse

THE SUDDEN maturity to which Michael Angelo brought our art, and the comparative feebleness of his followers and imitators, might perhaps be reasonably, at least plausibly explained, if we had time for such an examination. At present I shall only observe, that the subordinate parts of our art, and perhaps of other arts, expand themselves by a slow and progressive growth; but those which depend on a native vigour of imagination generally burst forth at once in fulness of beauty. Of this Homer probably, and Shakespeare more assuredly, are signal examples. Michael Angelo possessed the poetical part of our art in a most eminent degree: and the same daring spirit, which urged him first to explore the unknown regions of the imagination, delighted with the novelty, and animated by the success of his discoveries, could not have failed to stimulate and impel him forward in his career beyond those limits, which his followers, destitute of the same incentives, had not strength to pass.
  1
  To distinguish between correctness of drawing, and that part which respects the imagination, we may say the one approaches to the mechanical (which in its way too may make just pretensions to genius), and the other to the poetical. To encourage a solid and vigorous course of study, it may not be amiss to suggest, that perhaps a confidence in the mechanic produces a boldness in the poetic. He that is sure of the goodness of his ship and tackle puts out fearlessly from the shore; and he who knows that his hand can execute whatever his fancy can suggest, sports with more freedom in embodying the visionary forms of his own creation. I will not say Michael Angelo was eminently poetical, only because he was greatly mechanical; but I am sure that mechanic excellence invigorated and emboldened his mind to carry painting into the regions of poetry, and to emulate that art in its most adventurous flights. Michael Angelo equally possessed both qualifications. Yet of mechanic excellence there were certainly great examples to be found in ancient sculpture, and particularly in the fragment known by the name of the Torso of Michael Angelo; but of that grandeur of character, air, and attitude, which he threw into all his figures, and which so well corresponds with the grandeur of his outline, there was no example; it could therefore proceed only from the most poetical and sublime imagination.  2
  It is impossible not to express some surprise, that the race of painters who preceded Michael Angelo, men of acknowledged great abilities, should never have thought of transferring a little of that grandeur of outline which they could not but see and admire in ancient sculpture, into their own works; but they appear to have considered sculpture as the later schools of artists look at the inventions of Michael Angelo,—as something to be admired, but with which they have nothing to do: quod super nos, nihil ad nos. The artists of that age, even Raffaelle himself, seemed to be going on very contentedly in the dry manner of Pietro Perugino; and if Michael Angelo had never appeared, the art might still have continued in the same style.  3
  Beside Rome and Florence, where the grandeur of this style was first displayed, it was on this foundation that the Caracci built the truly great academical Bolognian school, of which the first stone was laid by Pellegrino Tibaldi. He first introduced this style amongst them; and many instances might be given in which he appears to have possessed as by inheritance, the true, genuine, noble, and elevated mind of Michael Angelo. Though we cannot venture to speak of him with the same fondness as his countrymen, and call him, as the Caracci did, Nostro Michael Angelo riformato, yet he has a right to be considered amongst the first and greatest of his followers: there are certainly many drawings and inventions of his, of which Michael Angelo himself might not disdain to be supposed the author, or that they should be, as in fact they often are, mistaken for his. I will mention one particular instance, because it is found in a book which is in every young artist’s hand; Bishop’s Ancient Statues. He there has introduced a print, representing Polyphemus, from a drawing of Tibaldi, and has inscribed it with the name of Michael Angelo, to whom he has also in the same book attributed a Sybil of Raffaelle. Both these figures, it is true, are professedly in Michael Angelo’s style and spirit, and even worthy of his hand. But we know that the former is painted in the Institute a Bologna by Tibaldi, and the other in the Pace by Raffaelle.  4
  The Caracci, it is acknowledged, adopted the mechanical part with sufficient success. But the divine part, which addresses itself to the imagination, as possessed by Michael Angelo or Tibaldi, was beyond their grasp: they formed, however, a most respectable school, a style more on the level, and calculated to please a greater number; and if excellence of this kind is to be valued according to the number, rather than the weight and quality of admirers, it would assume even a higher rank in Art. The same, in some sort, may be said of Tintoret, Paolo Veronese, and others of the Venetian painters. They certainly much advanced the dignity of their style by adding to their fascinating powers of colouring something of the strength of Michael Angelo; at the same time it may still be a doubt, how far their ornamental elegance would be an advantageous addition to his grandeur. But if there is any manner of painting which may be said to unite kindly with his style, it is that of Titian. His handling, the manner in which his colours are left on the canvass, appears to proceed (as far as that goes) from a congenial mind, equally disdainful of vulgar criticism.  5
  Michael Angelo’s strength thus qualified, and made more palatable to the general taste, reminds me of an observation which I heard a learned critic make, when it was incidentally remarked, that our translation of Homer, however excellent, did not convey the character, nor had the grand air of the original. He replied, that if Pope had not clothed the naked majesty of Homer with the graces and elegancies of modern fashions—though the real dignity of Homer was degraded by such a dress—his translation would not have met with such a favourable reception, and he must have been contented with fewer readers.  6
  Many of the Flemish painters, who studied at Rome in that great era of our art, such as Francis Floris, Hemskerk, Michael Coxis, Jerom Cock, and others, returned to their own country with as much of this grandeur as they could carry. But like seeds falling on a soil not prepared or adapted to their nature, the manner of Michael Angelo thrived but little with them; perhaps, however, they contributed to prepare the way for that free, unconstrained, and liberal outline, which was afterwards introduced by Rubens, through the medium of the Venetian painters.  7
  The grandeur of style has been in different degrees disseminated over all Europe. Some caught it by living at the time, and coming into contact with the original author, whilst others received it at second hand; and being everywhere adopted, it has totally changed the whole taste and style of design, if there could be said to be any style before his time. Our art, in consequence, now assumes a rank to which it could never have dared to aspire, if Michael Angelo had not discovered to the world the hidden powers which it possessed. Without his assistance we never could have been convinced, that painting was capable of producing an adequate representation of the persons and actions of the heroes of the Iliad.  8
  I would ask any man qualified to judge of such works whether he can look with indifference at the personification of the Supreme Being in the centre of the Capella Sistina, or the figures of the sybils which surround that chapel, to which we may add the statue of Moses; and whether the same sensations are not excited by those works, as what he may remember to have felt from the most sublime passages of Homer? I mention those figures more particularly, as they come nearer to a comparison with his Jupiter, his demi-gods, and heroes; those sybils and prophets being a kind of intermediate beings between men and angels. Though instances may be produced in the works of other painters which may justly stand in competition with those I have mentioned, such as the Isaiah, and the Vision of Ezekiel, by Raffaelle, the St. Mark of Frate Bartolomeo, and many others; yet these, it must be allowed, are inventions so much in Michael Angelo’s manner of thinking, that they may be truly considered as so many rays, which discover manifestly the centre from whence they emanated.  9
  The sublime in painting, as in poetry, so overpowers and takes such a possession of the whole mind, that no room is left for attention to minute criticism. The little elegancies of art in the presence of these great ideas thus greatly expressed, lose all their value, and are, for the instant at least, felt to be unworthy of our notice. The correct judgment, the purity of taste, which characterise Raffaelle, the exquisite grace of Coreggio and Parmegiano, all disappear before them.  10
  That Michael Angelo was capricious in his inventions cannot be denied; and this may make some circumspection necessary in studying his works; for though they appear to become him, an imitation of them is always dangerous, and will prove sometimes ridiculous. “Within that circle none durst walk but he.” To me, I confess his caprice does not lower the estimation of his genius, even though it is sometimes, I acknowledge, carried to the extreme: and however these eccentric excursions are considered, we must at the same time recollect that those faults, if they are faults, are such as never could occur to a mean and vulgar mind; that they flowed from the same source which produced his greatest beauties, and were therefore such as none but himself was capable of committing; they were the powerful impulses of a mind unused to subjection of any kind, and too high to be controlled by cold criticism.  11
  Many see his daring extravagance who can see nothing else. A young artist finds the works of Michael Angelo so totally different from those of his own master, or of those with whom he is surrounded, that he may be easily persuaded to abandon and neglect studying a style which appears to him wild, mysterious, and above his comprehension, and which he therefore feels no disposition to admire; a good disposition, which he concludes that he should naturally have, if the style deserved it. It is necessary, therefore, that students should be prepared for the disappointment which they may experience at their first setting out; and they must be cautioned that probably they will not, at first sight, approve.  12
  It must be remembered that this great style itself is artificial in the highest degree; it presupposes in the spectator a cultivated and prepared artificial state of mind. It is an absurdity, therefore, to suppose that we are born with this taste, though we are with the seeds of it, which, by the heat and kindly influence of his genius, may be ripened in us.  13
  A late philosopher and critic has observed, speaking of taste, that we are on no account to expect that fine things should descend to us—our taste, if possible, must be made to ascend to them. The same learned writer recommends to us even to feign a relish till we find a relish come; and feel, that what began in fiction, terminates in reality. If there be in our art anything of that agreement or compact, such as I apprehend there is in music, with which the critic is necessarily required previously to be acquainted in order to form a correct judgment, the comparison with this art will illustrate what I have said on these points, and tend to show the probability, we may say the certainty, that men are not born with a relish for those arts in their most refined state, which, as they cannot understand, they cannot be impressed with their effects. This great style of Michael Angelo is as far removed from the simple representation of the common objects of nature as the most refined Italian music is from the inartificial notes of nature, from whence they both profess to originate. But without such a supposed compact we may be very confident that the highest state of refinement in either of those arts will not be relished without a long and industrious attention.  14
  In pursuing this great art it must be acknowledged that we labour under greater difficulties than those who were born in the age of its discovery, and whose minds from their infancy were habituated to this style; who learned it as a language, as their mother tongue. They had no mean taste to unlearn; they needed no persuasive discourse to allure them to a favourable reception of it, no abstruse investigation of its principles to convince them of the great latent truths on which it is founded. We are constrained, in these latter days, to have recourse to a sort of grammar and dictionary, as the only means of recovering a dead language. It was by them learned by rote, and perhaps better learned that way than by precept.  15
  The style of Michael Angelo, which I have compared to language, and which may, poetically speaking, be called the language of the gods, now no longer exists as it did in the fifteenth century; yet, with the aid of diligence, we may in a great measure supply the deficiency which I mentioned, of not having his works so perpetually before our eyes, by having recourse to casts from his models and designs in sculpture, to drawings, or even copies of those drawings, to prints which, however ill executed, still convey something by which this taste may be formed, and a relish may be fixed and established in our minds for this grand style of invention. Some examples of this kind we have in the Academy, and I sincerely wish there were more, that the younger students might in their first nourishment imbibe this taste; whilst others, though settled in the practice of the common-place style of painters, might infuse, by this means, a grandeur into their works.  16
  I shall now make some remarks on the course which I think most proper to be pursued in such a study. I wish you not to go so much to the derivative streams, as to the fountainhead; though the copies are not to be neglected; because they may give you hints in what manner you may copy, and how the genius of one man may be made to fit the peculiar manner of another.  17
  To recover this lost taste, I would recommend young artists to study the works of Michael Angelo, as he himself did the works of the ancient sculptors; he began when a child, a copy of a mutilated Satyr’s head, and finished in his model what was wanting in the original. In the same manner, the first exercise that I would recommend to the young artist when he first attempts invention, is, to select every figure, if possible, from the inventions of Michael Angelo. If such borrowed figures will not bend to his purpose, and he is constrained to make a change to supply a figure himself, that figure will necessarily be in the same style with the rest; and his taste will by this means be naturally initiated, and nursed in the lap of grandeur. He will sooner perceive what constitutes this grand style by one practical trial than by a thousand speculations, and he will in some sort procure to himself that advantage which in these later ages has been denied him: the advantage of having the greatest of artists for his master and instructor.  18
  The next lesson should be, to change the purpose of the figures without changing the attitude, as Tintoret has done with the Sampson of Michael Angelo. Instead of the figure which Sampson bestrides, he has placed an eagle under him; and instead of the jawbone, thunder and lightning in his right hand; and thus it becomes a Jupiter. Titian, in the same manner, has taken the figure which represents God dividing the light from the darkness in the vault of the Capella Sistina, and has introduced it in the famous battle of Cadore, so much celebrated by Vasari; and extraordinary as it may seem, it is here converted to a general falling from his horse. A real judge who should look at this picture, would immediately pronounce the attitude of that figure to be in a greater style than any other figure of the composition. These two instances may be sufficient, though many more might be given in their works, as well as in those of other great artists.  19
  When the student has been habituated to this grand conception of the art, when the relish for this style is established, makes a part of himself, and is woven into his mind, he will, by this time, have got a power of selecting from whatever occurs in nature that is grand, and corresponds with that taste which he has now acquired; and will pass over whatever is common-place and insipid. He may then bring to the mart such works of his own proper invention as may enrich and increase the general stock of invention in our art.  20
  I am confident of the truth and propriety of the advice which I have recommended; at the same time I am aware, how much by this advice I have laid myself open to the sarcasms of those critics who imagine our art to be a matter of inspiration. But I should be sorry it should appear even to myself that I wanted that courage which I have recommended to the students in another way: equal courage perhaps is required in the adviser and the advised; they both must equally dare and bid defiance to narrow criticism and vulgar opinion.  21
  That the art has been in a gradual state of decline, from the age of Michael Angelo to the present, must be acknowledged, and we may reasonably impute this declension to the same cause to which the ancient critics and philosophers have imputed the corruption of eloquence. Indeed the same causes are likely at all times and in all ages to produce the same effects: indolence,—not taking the same pains as our great predecessors took,—desiring to find a shorter way, are the general imputed causes. The words of Petronius are very remarkable. After opposing the natural chaste beauty of the eloquence of former ages to the strained inflated style then in fashion, “neither,” says he, “has the art in painting had a better fate, after the boldness of the Egyptians had found out a compendious way to execute so great an art.”  22
  By compendious, I understand him to mean a mode of painting, such as has infected the style of the later painters of Italy and France; common-place, without thought, and with as little trouble, working as by a receipt; in contra-distinction to that style for which even a relish cannot be acquired without care and long attention, and most certainly the power of executing cannot be obtained without the most laborious application.  23
  I have endeavoured to stimulate the ambition of artists to tread in this great path of glory, and, as well as I can, have pointed out the track which leads to it, and have at the same time told them the price at which it may be obtained. It is an ancient saying, that labour is the price which the gods have set upon everything valuable.  24
  The great artist who has been so much the subject of the present discourse, was distinguished even from his infancy for his indefatigable diligence; and this was continued through his whole life, till prevented by extreme old age. The poorest of men, as he observed himself, did not labour from necessity, more than he did from choice. Indeed, from all the circumstances related of his life, he appears not to have had the least conception that his art was to be acquired by any other means than great labour; and yet he, of all men that ever lived, might make the greatest pretensions to the efficacy of native genius and inspiration. I have no doubt that he would have thought it no disgrace that it should be said of him, as he himself said of Raffaelle, that he did not possess his art from nature, but by long study. He was conscious that the great excellence to which he arrived was gained by dint of labour, and was unwilling to have it thought that any transcendent skill, however natural its effect might seem, could be purchased at a cheaper price than he had paid for it. This seems to have been the true drift of his observation. We cannot suppose it made with any intention of depreciating the genius of Raffaelle, of whom he always spoke, as Condivi says, with the greatest respect: though they were rivals, no such illiberality existed between them; and Raffaelle on his part entertained the greatest veneration for Michael Angelo, as appears from the speech which is recorded of him, that he congratulated himself, and thanked God, that he was born in the same age with that painter.  25
  If the high esteem and veneration in which Michael Angelo has been held by all nations and in all ages, should be put to the account of prejudice, it must still be granted that those prejudices could not have been entertained without a cause: the ground of our prejudice then becomes the source of our admiration. But from whatever it proceeds, or whatever it is called, it will not, I hope, be thought presumptuous in me to appear in the train, I cannot say of his imitators, but of his admirers. I have taken another course, one more suited to my abilities, and to the taste of the times in which I live. Yet however unequal I feel myself to that attempt, were I now to begin the world again, I would tread in the steps of that great master: to kiss the hem of his garment, to catch the slightest of his perfections, would be glory and distinction enough for an ambitious man.  26
  I feel a self congratulation in knowing myself capable of such sensations as he intended to excite. I reflect, not without vanity, that these discourses bear testimony to my admiration of that truly divine man; and I should desire that the last words which I should pronounce in this academy, and from this place, might be the name of—Michael Angelo.  27
 
 
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